‘Tenet’ Debut Leaves Forecasters Stumped on Definition of a Hit

(Bloomberg) -- Movie executives will be on the edge of their seats this weekend to see a big thriller: how many people show up in theaters for director Christopher Nolan’s new suspense film “Tenet.”

The much-delayed $200 million film is the first really big-budget Hollywood picture to hit U.S. theaters since the Covid-19 pandemic shuttered cinemas in March. It opened internationally last week, began showing in some domestic theaters on Aug. 31, and will roll out to more than half of the nation’s cinemas in time for the long Labor Day holiday.

© Bloomberg Choose Your ‘Tenet’ Forecast

“It was really important that somebody went first with a major blockbuster, to get the theater industry going again,” said Rich Gelfond, chief executive officer of Imax Corp., which is showing the picture in at least 300 of its North American locations. “This weekend will be a test of how many people feel safe going to the movies.”

The next few days will be significant for the film industry in a number of ways. Walt Disney Co. is releasing its highly anticipated “Mulan” remake on Friday as a $30 download for subscribers to its Disney+ streaming service. Although the family-friendly picture targets a different audience than Nolan’s complex spy film, it still presents an alternative for some movie fans and a threat to theaters owners, who don’t want to see big-budget movies debut online.

Meanwhile, the studio behind “Tenet,” AT&T Inc.’s Warner Bros., is taking some unusual marketing steps of its own. Big-budget movies normally debut in the U.S. first -- or at least on the same day worldwide. But Warner Bros. decided to release “Tenet” first in international markets where theaters have been back open longer.

Due to local virus-related shutdowns, “Tenet” won’t be shown initially in Los Angeles and New York City, markets where films also tend to run first to generate a lot of buzz and ticket sales. Labor Day itself is usually a quiet weekend for new movies, as families are away on end-of-summer vacations or tied up with back-to-school plans.

Discounts, Distancing

Theaters have been offering discounted tickets to entice customers back. They’re also limiting seating capacity to reduce the Covid-19 exposure risk. Industry leader AMC Entertainment Holdings Inc., for example, is selling just 40% of the available seats at theaters it has reopened.

All this makes measuring success for “Tenet” very tricky. The film generated $53.6 million in revenue overseas last week. That was a surprisingly strong number given the pandemic and almost identical to the amount Nolan’s last picture, “Dunkirk,” produced in its international debut in 2017. “Dunkirk” went on to take in a robust $527 million during its worldwide theatrical run.

North American sales estimates for “Tenet” vary from as little at $15 million to as much as $50 million. One analyst says $15 million in ticket sales from Friday to Sunday would be a success. Another says anything less than $50 million is a disaster.

“We would all love to see this movie do in the double-digit millions,” said Rolando Rodriguez, CEO of Marcus Theatres, a Milwaukee-based chain with more than 1,100 screens. Sales of $25 million to $30 million “certainly would be very nice to see.”

Some Hollywood observers -- such as Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at industry tracker Comscore Inc. -- think that after nearly six months of theater shutdowns, the real battle is over.

“Just to have it open, that’s how I define success,” Dergarabedian said. “To me, that’s the win.”

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